Total Recall

An event bigger than the GM ignition issue is occurring with faulty deployment of airbags. From Bloomberg:

Toyota is advising U.S. owners to keep passengers out of front seats until defective Takata Corp. air bag parts are replaced, four months after following the same procedure in Japan. Takata faces investigations into whether exploding shrapnel from its flawed parts are to blame for at least four deaths involving vehicles made by Honda, including a Florida crash that was initially investigated as a homicide because of deep gashes to the victim’s neck.

The growing number of air-bag recalls also raise doubts about whether carmakers have learned to address defects quickly and comprehensively after General Motors Co.’s bungled ignition switch recalls and Toyota’s failures in 2009 and 2010 involving unintended acceleration. Honda is under separate probes over whether it under reported fatalities and injuries in the U.S.

This is interesting part.

NHTSA issued a statement on Oct. 20 telling owners to “act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags,” adding there should be particular urgency in areas of high humidity such as Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

NYT adds a bit more in that is is not just Toyota and Honda but other car manufacturers as well.

Most automakers have their own sites that allow consumers to search for recall information using their vehicle identification number. The automakers covered in the warning included Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, BMW, Chrysler, Subaru, Ford, Mitsubishi and General Motors. Late Tuesday, the agency revised its list to include five more automakers and raised its total of a million vehicles to 6.1 million.

You read that right : That’s 6.1 Million.

Even if you rush your car there, there is apparently a 90 day backlog. What is concerning to me is the age of the vehicles: from 2001 which is now outside warranty period.Having understood there was a lifetime limitatio with airbags, I looked it up. In the 1990’s, the lifetime of the airbag was given at 10 years. In 2000’s it was upped to 15 years but now is the lifetime of the car. (Edmunds has some more information for those wishing to read more about this.)

So why the humidity? A bit of digging around I found this on an AP blog.

The older-model cars have air bag inflators that can rupture. If that happens, the air bags might not work properly in a crash, and shards from the broken system could fly out and cause injury.

…”Based on the limited data available at this time, NHTSA supports efforts by automakers to address the immediate risk in areas that have consistently hot, humid conditions over extended periods of time,” the agency said in a statement.

Honda says too much pressure may be building up in the system, causing the air bags to deploy with too much force.

In one complaint last August, a Honda driver’s lawyer told NHTSA that the car was in a crash, and both driver and passenger air bags inflated. The driver’s air bag inflator ruptured “and propelled a one-inch piece of shrapnel into the driver’s right eye.” The driver lost sight and suffered cuts requiring 100 stitches to close, the complaint said.

But still it doesn’t explain it.  Autonews has the best explanation

A Reuters story in January had pointed to moisture as causing some of Takata’s inflators to malfunction.

Ammonium nitrate, the propellant used in Takata’s inflators, is sensitive to moisture, according to Reuters. The moisture can cause the wafers of propellant to crumble, so that it will burn too fast when ignited. When the airbag deploys, that can trigger an explosion.

From 2000 to 2002, Takata’s plants in Washington and Mexico used some propellant that had been exposed to moisture. Takata fixed the problem, but faulty record-keeping hampered it from identifying those batches. So the automakers issued huge recalls to track down all defective airbags — 7 million over the last five years, Reuters has reported.

On Friday, Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada said the inflators may have been damaged by moisture. The company noted that the six malfunctions under investigation by NHTSA occurred in Puerto Rico and Florida.

“We currently believe the high levels of absolute humidity in those states are important factors; and as a result our engineers are analyzing the impact that humidity may have on the potential for an inflator malfunction,” Takada said in a written statement.

So Takata will be kicked out of the market for this. Not a chance. From the same Autonews article.

With all the bad news, one might ask whether Takata will lose a significant number of airbag orders. The answer is probably not. Takata is simply too big — one of just three key suppliers, along with TRW and Autoliv, that dominate the global airbag market.

“The barriers to entry are ungodly high,” said Scott Upham, principal of Valient Market Research, a Rochester, N.Y., consulting firm that specializes in the airbag industry.

Suppliers must have deep-pocket expertise in electronics, explosives, metals and crash tests, Upham noted. Moreover, inflator factories require robots to handle key operations, and those facilities must be equipped with blast walls to cope with occasional blow-ups.

“That combination really keeps everybody out,” Upham said. “Some of the big German suppliers thought about getting into this sector but decided not to because of these issues.”

Will an airbag company look harder at the risks of even being in this business and if they do, will they require a price premium to cover the business? I think you may see that. Just look at the dates of manufacture. This was over a decade ago and they are still on the hook.

Now to come back to “Ammonium nitrate”. Where have I heard that. This was responsible for the explosion in West, Tx amongst other events.  From Apparently  Juichiro Takada, originally decided Takata Corp., would avoid automotive air bags as a business where he initially said it was too risky.

“We cannot cross a bridge that is so dangerous,” Takada told Saburo Kobayashi at the party. In his 2012 memoirs, Kobayashi, who was leading Honda’s new air-bag program in the mid-1980s, wrote that he wanted Takata to make air bags from its sturdy textiles. Somehow, in a fateful gamble, Takada changed his mind and crossed that bridge.”

..But nearly three decades later, Juichiro Takada’s worries seem prescient. After a series of incidents and at least two deaths allegedly caused by faulty air bags, Takata’s car-company clients last year ordered the largest air-bag-related recall in history. Juichiro’s son and heir, Shigehisa Takada, gave up family operating control of the company for the first time, ceding the president’s post to a Swiss executive.

So is this a ‘feed them to the lions’ case? No. I have worked in this industry and these people especially Japanese manufacturers, look very hard at safety. Unfortunately, as we see the risk of black swan event where you are wrong is an ever present risk in this industry.

Given the chance to enter the automotive business, I’d run a mile and keep going.


Head Emperor of Roam. Originally born Gaius Octavius in 63BC, Augustus has great deal of experience running empires, dealing with civil wars, subdueing barbarian tribes and that sort of thing. Currently living in Katy, Texas, Mr Caesar is the architect of modern day Roam with aspirations of starting up a new virtual empire. In his spare time Augustus is a family man.